Chertoff Remark More Reminder Than Warning To Security Officials
Homeland Security Secretary Michael Chertoff's "gut feeling" about an increased terrorist risk this summer didn't send local law enforcement scrambling for increased security, although officials said Wednesday it emphasized the need for vigilance in a post-9/11 world.
"Not to contradict any other statement, but it doesn't matter the time of year," said Miami-Dade police Lt. Nancy Perez. "We must remain on alert 365 days a year."
In New York, the nation's No. 1 terrorist target, the state chief of homeland security said security was already ramped up in the wake of the London and Glasgow attacks. Michael Balboni said he anticipated a "busy summer season in terms of threats," adding there was nothing specific indicated.
"We have to keep our vigilance high," Balboni said. "This is simply to say, `Don't fall asleep at the switch.' That includes the public. We can't rely only on the police officer on the corner."
But Chertoff's remarks rankled Massachusetts Gov. Deval Patrick, who stressed the need for information over intuition.
"I don't think any of us are able to pan or prepare on a gut feeling," Patrick said. "If there's information, we expect it to be shared. ... Frankly, I don't think it is helpful to have the Secretary of Homeland Security telling us what he feels. He should tell us what he knows."
Patrick stressed that Massachusetts authorities were already maintaining "a level of constant vigilance" before Chertoff's remark.
The situation was the same in Los Angeles, where police had already tightened security at local airports, financial districts, and Hollywood nightclub areas after the European attacks. Deputy Chief Michael Downing, commanding officer of the LAPD's Counterterrorism Criminal Intelligence Bureau, said he understood Chertoff's suspicions.
"That's what police work is," he said. "The art of policing is instincts. If your instinct tells you something, you prepare, prevent, protect and pursue."
In Chicago, where Chertoff made his comment to the editorial board of The Chicago Tribune, law enforcement officials said they interpreted Chertoff's statement as a reminder to remain wary during the summer season of outdoor festivals and other large events.
"The message is precautionary," said Chicago police department spokeswoman Monique Bond. "It's a reminder."
The White House supported Chertoff for stressing the importance of being vigilant. "I'm glad we've got a Homeland Security secretary that worries about it all the time," White House spokesman Tony Snow said Wednesday. "If you take a look at what's gone on around the world, you can kind of understand some of the thinking."
Rep. Peter King of New York, the ranking Republican on the House Homeland Security Committee, said there was intelligence indicating an increase of activity without any specific evidence of a threat.
"The biggest message is for Americans to realize we have to assume we can be attacked any day," King said. "The fact that there is more talk out there heightens our vigilance. ... It's like chasing ghosts."
But King's Democratic counterpart, House Homeland Security Committee Chairman Bennie Thompson of Mississippi, took Chertoff to task over the remarks.
"Words have power, Mr. Secretary. You must choose them wisely _ especially when they relate to the lives and security of the American public. What color code in the Homeland Security Advisory System is associated with a `gut feeling?"' Thompson said in a letter to Chertoff. "Are the American people supposed to purchase duct tape and plastic sheeting because of your `gut feeling?"'
Associated Press writers Robert Jablon in Los Angeles, Dave Eggert in Lansing, Mich., Jennifer Kay in Miami, Sophia Tareen in Chicago and Steve LeBlanc in Boston contributed to this report.